My daughter loves her grandma’s stories. Sometimes grandma will talk about her deceased husband. I never had the opportunity to meet my father-in-law. Alcohol stole his life before I met my husband. After hearing her grandma’s stories, my daughter, who was only 5 years old at the time, wanted to know why her grandpa died so young. I was faced with the decision of explaining addiction to my small child or trying to answer her question without revealing the whole truth.
Read All About It
What I didn’t know at the time was that there are a number of books available to help children of all ages wrap their heads around substance use disorder. Explaining addiction to children is a topic that many parents and grandparents find themselves exploring. To that end, our partners at Canyon Vista and Willingway Recovery Centers have each assembled lists of books that help children better comprehend and cope with addiction. Whether your child is so small that you are still reading to them, getting ready to go off to college, or somewhere in between, there are developmentally appropriate books to answer their questions about substance use disorder.
If the child is young, it might be helpful to let Sesame Street start the conversation about addiction. In 2019, Sesame Street began offering a story line on a child whose parent was struggling with addiction. Watching this story might help answer your child’s questions and reassure them that they are not the only person whose family has experienced this particular hardship.
The Important Points
A Huffington Post article on how to discuss addiction with children makes several recommendations for how to inform kids without increasing the negative feelings they might already be experiencing. These include:
- Start early – Pre-school might seem too soon to start talking about addiction, but if you start the conversation early, using age-appropriate resources, you will ensure that your child gets the correct message before being exposed to inaccurate messages from their peers.
- Keep it age appropriate and keep on talking – The conversation you have with a four-year-old isn’t the conversation you will have with a ten-year-old or a 16-year-old. Keep it on their level, and continue talking as they grow. Make it clear that you are open to discussing addiction and answering their questions.
- Make connections to things they understand – A small child doesn’t understand heroin and neuroreceptors in the human brain, but they understand candy and the temptation to overindulge in something that makes them feel good. A bigger kid can understand wanting their friends to think they are cool and doing things to gain acceptance.
- Be honest – If I had hidden the fact that my daughter’s grandfather died early because of alcohol, she might have thought that he was a bad person or someone we were ashamed of. I was able to explain to her that he had a very sad disease, brought on by untreated trauma from time he spent fighting for our country in Vietnam.
- Use resources – The various links above will take you to age-appropriate resources for explaining addiction to children. Support groups for children and families of people with substance use disorders and your loved one’s treatment program also have great tools.
The 7 Cs
The National Association for Children of Addiction lists 7 things that adults can teach children to help them cope with addiction in the family. These are:
- Cause – the child didn’t cause the addiction or resulting problems.
- Cure – the child can’t cure the person suffering from addiction.
- Control – the child isn’t in control of the situation.
- Care – the child can take care of themselves in a couple of ways:
- Communicating their feelings, making
- Choices that are healthy, and
- Celebrating themselves.
Ultimately, when explaining addiction to children, it is about helping them to understand, on the level most appropriate for them, that it is okay to ask questions and to have a variety of feelings about the situation. At Safe Harbor Recovery Center, we are happy to include children in family recovery activities to help them adjust and learn about what it means to be in recovery from addiction.